Fishing Rod and Reel Guide
The simple wooden fishing pole has been used to catch fish for centuries. Fortunately for modern anglers, today’s fiberglass, graphite and carbon fiber fishing rods are much more advanced and specialized. There is no single rod that will “do everything.” Instead, fishing rods are engineered to excel at a particular style of fishing, from catching panfish at the local pond to landing giant marlin out on the open ocean. Most modern fishing rods fall into one of the following groups: 1) freshwater casting and spinning rods, 2) saltwater rods, 3) fly rods and 4) specialty rods. Fishing reels can also be divided into five primary categories: 1) spinning reels, 2) spincast reels 3) baitcasting reels 4) conventional reels and 5) fly reels. Keep reading to learn more about how to choose a fishing rod and reel that will work for your needs.
  • Fishing Rods

    Spinning Rods and Casting Rods (Freshwater)

    • Spinning rods are designed to be used with spinning reels. The most noticeable difference between a spinning rod and a casting rod is the guides. On a spinning rod, the guide closest to the handle will have a larger diameter than the guides near the tip. This design allows the line to unspool more easily from the spinning reel and pass smoothly through the guides. When holding a spinning rod, the reel and guides will usually be situated on the bottom of the rod (facing down).
    • Casting rods are designed to be used with either spincast reels or baitcast reels. These fishing rods typically have guides that are the same diameter. When holding a casting rod, the reel and guides will be situated on top of the rod (facing up).

    Saltwater Fishing Rods

    If you plan on fishing in saltwater conditions, including ocean coastline, inlets, bays, canals and the open sea, consider choosing a rod designed specifically for saltwater. Since saltwater is harder on equipment compared to freshwater, most saltwater rods are made with corrosion-resistant materials. Also, because saltwater fish species tend to be larger and stronger compared to freshwater species, saltwater rods are designed to accommodate heavier line weights. Most rods can be divided into the following categories:

    • Saltwater spinning rods are designed to be used with a spinning reel. A saltwater spinning rod is a good choice for fishing off a pier or fishing with lighter bait off a boat on flat water.
    • Saltwater casting rods are usually designed to be used with a conventional reel. A saltwater casting rod is usually designed to handle larger bait and fish compared to a similarly sized spinning rod, which makes casting rods ideal for angling on the open ocean.
    • Surf rods have extra-long handles and are designed for fishing from the ocean shore. A surf rod is typically used with a spinning reel and is engineered to cast very far, allowing an angler to launch bait out into the ocean from the shoreline.
    • Trolling rods are the biggest and strongest in the saltwater category. Most trolling rods are equipped with a heavy-duty conventional reel. A saltwater trolling rod is designed specifically for big game fishing on the open ocean.

    Fly Rods

    Although a fly rod may look similar to a casting rod, there are several key differences. One big difference is the reel mount and grip. A fly rod is specifically designed to be mounted with a fly reel, which is situated below the primary grip. This design is what enables an angler to use various fly casting techniques, such as a false cast. The way a fly rod is crafted also differs from other types of rods. From the shaft material to the shape of the guides, every aspect of a fly rod is designed specifically for using fly fishing techniques. However, the process of choosing a fly rod is still similar to choosing a casting rod or spinning rod. Rod weight, power and action are all primary considerations. (We cover these aspects in the next section). For more detailed information on fly rods, be sure to check out our Fly Fishing Guide.

    Specialty Fishing Rods

    This category usually includes telescopic fishing rods, ice fishing rods and rods designed for specific fish species, such as crappie rods. Basically, any rod that doesn’t fit into one of the previously mentioned categories can usually be found under the specialty rods category.

  • Rod Specification

    Fishing Rod Weights

    Many fishing rod models are available in several different weights. The rod weight determines what fishing lines can be used optimally. This subsequently determines what species of fish you can catch. For example, a rod may have the weight listed as 6/12 lb. This means that the rod is designed to optimally handle fishing lines between six-pound test and 12-pound test. Could you use this rod with four-pound line? Absolutely. The biggest drawback is that a 6/12 lb. rod won’t be as sensitive as a 2/8 lb. rod, which could make it harder to feel the bite of a smaller fish. If you want to target panfish, the 2/8 lb. rod with four-pound line may be a better choice. Can an angler use a 6/12 lb. rod with 17-pound line? Possibly, but it’s generally not a good idea. Using heavier line to catch larger fish on a pole that isn’t designed to handle that much weight could eventually snap the rod. For more information on how to choose fishing line, be sure to check out our Fishing Line Guide.

    Fishing Rod Action

    The way a fishing rod is constructed determines the rod’s action, which in turn affects how the rod flexes and handles. There are three primary types of action: fast, medium and slow.

    • Fast-action fishing rods focus the majority of the flex near the tip, which translates to greater sensitivity and powerful hook setting. Fast-action rods are ideal for casting in windy conditions. However, using a fast-action rod requires very good timing and technique. These rods are not very forgiving. Most beginners will prefer a medium-action or slow-action rod.
    • Medium-action fishing rods focus the majority of the flex between the halfway point and the tip. Medium-action rods offer anglers the most versatility. They are more forgiving than fast-action rods but also tend to cast farther than slow-action rods.
    • Slow-action fishing rods distribute flex across the entire length of the rod, which is ideal for fishermen who need to make short, accurate and gentle casts without a lot of power. Slower rods also give less experienced anglers more control over their casts. However, slow-action rods don’t perform well in windy conditions and are not ideal for making long casts.

    The chart below shows how rods with different actions will flex under load:

    Rod Flex

    It’s important to keep in mind that there is no industry standard for determining fishing rod action. In other words, a medium-action rod from one brand may be slightly faster or slower than a medium-action rod from another brand. When switching to a new rod, give yourself a little time to adjust to how it handles.

    Fishing Rod Power

    Fishing rod power refers to how easily a fishing rod will flex under load. Power is often divided into three primary categories: light power, medium power and heavy power. However, some manufacturers offer additional options. St. Croix, for example, has seven power classifications: ultralight (UL), light (L), medium light (ML), medium (M), medium heavy (MH), heavy (H) and extra heavy (XH). Rod power directly relates to how much lure weight a rod is designed to handle.

    Here’s a quick example: Let’s say we suspended a half-pound weight from the tip of a heavy-power rod, a medium-power rod and a light-power rod. Assuming the rods are all the same model, from the same manufacturer, with the same action, we should notice the light rod flexing much more compared to the heavy rod. The diagram below shows what the difference in flex might look like between three different fast-action rods with different power:

    Rod Power

    Do you love launching heavy rigs as far out as possible? If so, you’ll benefit from choosing a heavy-power rod. Are you more focused on finesse, using lighter lures and carefully placing shorter casts to get the most accuracy? You may benefit from choosing a light-power rod. Looking for a good compromise between these two styles? Consider going with a medium-power rod for the most versatility.

  • Fishing Reels

    Spinning Reels

    The spinning reel is a very popular and versatile reel. One of the most noticeable features on a spinning reel is the spool axis, which is oriented parallel to the rod. This orientation makes the spool less prone to backlash compared to a baitcasting or conventional reel. Learning to operate a spinning reel does take some practice. Prior to casting, the angler must first pinch the fishing line with the index finger of the casting hand. After flipping open the bail to release the spool mechanism, an angler will manually release the line during the cast, which requires good timing. Spinning reels are slightly more challenging to use compared to spincast reels, but they’re easier to operate compared to baitcasting and conventional reels.

    Spincast Reels

    Spincast reels are designed to be very user friendly and ideal for beginners. They also tend to be the most affordable. Unlike a spinning reel, a spincast reel uses a push-button mechanism instead of a bail. When depressed, the button disengages the retrieval mechanism and locks the spool in place. The angler does not need to pinch the string. Once the button is released, the spool is also released, allowing the line to unspool freely. To cast, an angler simply presses and holds the button, releasing the button on the forward part of the cast, thus releasing the fishing line and bait. Most people find this design easier to use compared to other reels. However, because the spool is fully enclosed, spincast reels must be opened and cleaned more regularly to prevent corrosion. This is less of an issue with other reels that don’t have a fully enclosed spool. Some anglers also feel that spincast reels don’t cast quite as smoothly as spinning reels.

    Baitcasting Reels

    Unlike spinning and spincast reels, the spool axis on a baitcasting reel is oriented perpendicularly to the rod. One notable feature is that a baitcasting reel allows the angler to manually slow and stop the line during a cast by applying pressure on the spindle with the thumb. When done correctly, this technique gives anglers more precision, essentially allowing them to drop bait exactly where they want. However, performing this technique effectively takes a lot of practice. Also, in order to prevent the line from becoming tangled up on the spool during a cast (an effect known as backlash), the brake, drag and tension settings must be adjusted properly according to the casting distance, lure weight, wind conditions and other factors. The angler must also manually stop the spool from spinning as the lure or bait hits the water. For tips on how to use a baitcaster and avoid backlash, check out this helpful video from Andrew Flair Outdoors.

    Conventional Reels

    Just like a baitcast reel, a conventional reel has its spool axis oriented perpendicularly to the rod. One key difference is that conventional reels typically have much larger spools, allowing them to hold higher poundage line, making these reels popular for offshore fishing and trolling. Another noticeable difference is the shape of the reel. The cross section of a baitcasting reel is oval-shaped. The cross section of a conventional reel is circular. Casting with a conventional reel requires the angler to apply pressure on the reel in order to prevent backlash. This technique is called “thumbing the reel,” and takes practice to learn. Conventional reels may or may not have a brake to assist with preventing backlash.

    Spinning vs. Casting

    Spinning rods with spinning or spincast reels are ideal for catching small- to medium-sized fish. With the correct rod and line, spinning rods can be used to catch larger fish. However, because spinning reels tend to be lighter and have relatively small spools, these reels often work best with smaller bait and lures. Lightweight spinning poles with more flex allow anglers to feel the bite of smaller fish more easily. Casting rods and reels, on the other hand, are ideal for catching medium- to large-sized fish. Baitcasting and conventional reels tend to work best with heavier baits.

  • Maintenance

    All fishing rods and reels should be cleaned and properly maintained to ensure reliable performance on the water. Periodically remove the reel from your rod and clean the rod with mild dish soap, warm water and a soft rag. Be sure to thoroughly dry the rod with a cloth before storing. Fishing reels should also be cleaned periodically to keep them in good working condition. This may involve disassembling the reel to clean and grease moving parts. Over time, the inner workings of your reel will become dirty. Without periodic cleaning and lubricating, these parts may begin to wear and eventually corrode, causing your reel to stop functioning reliably. Some reels are more susceptible to this than others. For a full tutorial on how to clean a fishing reel, check out Bassmaster’s guide on how to clean a reel.